The Gin Game: The Interview

By on 30 January, 2012 in Art, Fun, Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

Sketch for The Gin Game

A stage setting is not a background; it is an environment. Players act in a setting, not against it. We say, in the audience, when we look at what the designer has made, before anyone on the stage has time to move or speak, “Aha, I see! It’s going to be like that!”

–Robert Edmond Jones, “The Dramatic Imagination”


The Playhouse’s inaugural production of “The Gin Game” has been graced by Mike Winkelman’s wonderful set design. Mike also has designed the lighting for the production. Mike was kind enough to take some time and chat about how he creates the space for the characters to inhabit and the audience to enjoy.

Greg Thornton: What are the elements that appeal to you when deciding whether you want to design a production?

Mike Winkelman: There are several factors which go into my decisions as to which plays/musicals I would like to design (not the least of which is the paycheck), but above and beyond that I look at who I will be working with and whether or not I feel like I would enjoy the experience.  Doing new plays, or at least plays that are new to me is always a plus.  Of course with the Cloverdale Playhouse, I feel a lot of this first season will be dealing with the ‘kinks’ in the process that I’d rather be there for to experience first-hand, rather than having others go through the bumps and bruises of a theater trying to get ‘on its feet.’

Greg Thornton: Is there a particular kind of play you prefer?

Mike Winkelman: Actually, I love the fact that I work in a variety of forms–ballet, Shakespeare, musicals, dramas, comedies.  Most theaters I work at have me pegged in a certain category (the lighting guy for our straight plays, the set designer for our musicals, etc.), but the truth of the matter is that I enjoy the variety as much as anything.  If all I did was small, single set shows — like the “Gin Game” — I’d probably go nuts.  But the last show I designed before “Gin Game” was the scenery for “Cinderella” (with 9 separate locations which the show moved between).  It was a challenge, as you might imagine, which I felt we handled very successfully, but I was also ready for something a little smaller in scale after that.

Greg Thornton: Can you talk about how the space determines the design?

Mike Winkelman: The theatrical environment is incredibly important to the design of any show.  Many spaces, like Cloverdale Playhouse, have limited on and off stage space, so simple unit sets will be the best, and many times the only way to go. Larger theaters, such as the mainstage at ASF (Alabama Shakespeare Festival), have flying systems and traps which allow for easy shifts and multiple directions from which actors can enter and exit the environments. Larger theatres tend to lose the intimacy of a smaller space, but also allow for a grander overall look of the show since there is so much more space involved.

Greg Thornton: What kind of research do you like to do beforehand?

Mike Winkelman: I love to dive into any kind of research on the shows I’m working on. Researching a show is actually my favorite part of the process since anything is possible as you are doing your research and the smallest snippet can find its way into maturing into reality in ways that always surprise you. Visual research would have to be my favorite area, although research into the various playwrights isn’t far behind. I love digging into a play and letting the text take you into worlds you’ve never experienced. It’s really the single thing that led me to becoming a designer.

Greg Thornton: Are you a “hands-on” designer ?

Mike Winkelman: Absolutely.Teaching in a very small theater program at AUM means that many times I will have to “fill the voids” on various productions when we won’t have a welder on staff, or a scenic artist, or a designer whose ready to take on a mainstage show. I was actually a carpenter to begin with in my undergraduate days, to help pay the bills, and over time transitioned into becoming a designer.  I certainly appreciate and use the skills of those with whom I work, but I never mind getting my elbows dirty either.

Greg Thornton: When you look at the Playhouse space, what kinds of things do you see happening here?

Mike Winkelman: Obviously I’m very excited about having the Playhouse join the Montgomery theatrical community, not only because it will become another outlet for my students to start to transition their work from college theater to their career work in the theater, but also because it will allow the talents our local community members to be displayed on the Montgomery stage in ways that haven’t been available since the days of the Montgomery Little Theatre.

Greg Thornton: What would you say to a volunteer who wanted to be part of the scenic design and construction at the Playhouse?

Mike Winkelman: Come on down and become a part of the experience. Just as with my designers at AUM, I will certainly be there to guide you through the process, but if there’s anyone who’s interested in working as a designer, or backstage in any capacity, come on in and introduce yourselves. That’s why the Cloverdale Playhouse is here.

Greg Thornton: How can the Playhouse thank you for all of your work, both in the renovation process and now with “The Gin Game” design?

Mike Winkelman: Well, the first million dollars you could just put into a scholarship fund at AUM and the second million …  Seriously, the joy of seeing this whole thing come together to realize Mr. Dees’ dream is all the thanks I could ask for. Working in the theatre is fulfilling in so many ways that only those of us who do this kind of craziness can understand. The laughter, the applause, the occasional tear. The experience of sharing is what it’s all about.

Greg Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

The Gin Game runs at the Cloverdale Playhouse: Feb. 2 – 12.

Performances: Thursdays, Fridays, & Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.

Sundays at 2 p.m.

For Tickets: Phone 334-262-1530



In Person: Cloverdale Playhouse

960 Cloverdale Road

Montgomery, AL 36106

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